Picking a topic last fall, my train of thought went something like this: “Well, I really like food. And food policy. But I think I’d really like to do something related to U.S. foreign relations… Foreign food aid?” Though chosen somewhat randomly, it turns out this has proved to be a very timely topic. Practically since food aid was first established by PL 480 (“Food for Peace”) in 1954, there has been a conflict in American motives. What is the purpose of food aid – to feed hungry people or to promote American business? What does the U.S. gain from providing food aid? If the benefits for America were minimal or intangible, would we continue doing it?
This debate continues today. The United States is the last major donor country to still use a “tied” food aid system, in which its donations are tied to the U.S. economy. Although we provide more aid than other country, it comes with strings attached – for example, the majority of the food must originate from the United States and 75% of it must be shipped on American carriers. This usually means that the food aid we send is less efficient and less effective. For example, the cost of shipping on American carriers can take up to 40% of the food aid funding. Furthermore, once received, the food might be culturally inappropriate or cause disincentive effects that ruin the local agricultural systems. In recent years, there have been several attempts to change this system to resemble the model used by Canada or the EU. These donors do not require actual commodities to be sent abroad; instead, they use cash donations that allow the recipient NGOs to fund agricultural production programs closer to the area in need.
While there are still potential pitfalls in such local procurement practices, this system seems to be a better approach for solving chronic hunger issues. Although the U.S. has yet to commit much funding in this direction, a pilot program was developed under the 2008 Farm Bill. Initial reports from Burkina Faso and Niger look promising and an independent evaluation of the program is due later this year. Although I expect the report will not be available until after the final paper is due, I am eager to read what results come back in favor of or against local procurement.